(From a Clive James 1993 New Yorker piece on Mark Twain.) It got me to wondering how Mark Twain might be received today in our polarized land.
“You could just about convince yourself that Huckleberry Finn was a work of literature in the Old World style, aimed at a refined public – after all, it certainly has the rank if not the manner. But Twain’s journalism is a daunting reminder that he was ready to lavish everything he had on everybody, every time. He was democratic all the way down to his metabolism. For Twain there was no division between democracy and creativity. They were versions of the same thing: exuberance.”
Twain’s journalism is full of contempt for racism in all its forms. Like Swift, he had a low opinion of the human race in general, reserving his admiration for individuals. He was not much given to admiring ethnic authenticity, but he condescended on a cultural basis rather than a racial on. For any creed or color that was being persecuted he was a vocal champion. Chinese immigrants were given a bad time by the locals could count on one kind voice, at least. His initial sympathy for America’s Cuba adventure was based on his contempt for Spain’s horrific colonial record, which was almost as bad as its domestic record. When the United States began to show Spanish tendencies in the Philippines, Twain soon started condemning American colonialism, too. As with the Spanish, so with any other European nation: he was always ready to point out that the Old World had dirty hands.
In the fictional south inhabited by Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson, even the black call blacks niggers. It was the way things were. [Twain scholar Alan Gribben, who is working with NewSouth Books in Alabama to publish a combined volume of the books, said the N-word appears 219 times in “Huck Finn” and four times in “Tom Sawyer.”] But if you can see past what you hear, the great message of those books is about human equality, and how racism violates it, reducing everyone to servitude, and no one more than the supposed master. The emotional centre of Huckleberry Finn is Jim’s story of how he escaped. Huck listens silently, as well he might, because it is only by grace that Jim is not including him in the vast system rigged against the slave’s bid from freedom – the whole white civilization.
Says James, “natural goodness doesn’t come any more easily to the oppressed than it does to the oppressor.
Twain thought that the Negro question was the biggest issue facing America both past and present, and he gives it his best efforts, in his private life as well as his public work. His personal conduct on the issue was impeccable. It is well known that Twain helped finance the education of Helen Keller. Less well known is that he supported one of the first black students to attend Yale all the way through college without meeting him more than once. Twain thought that to do such a thing was a white man’s plain duty and shouldn’t depend on the personal qualities of the beneficiary. Twain thought the white man’s debt was endless. He didn’t come out on the side of the Union just because it won. The Southern cause had depended on repressing minority, and that made the cause irredeemable.
Twain had the same sympathy for all repressed minorities, including (this would have got him into trouble if he lived later) the workers. Harboring no illusions about the benevolence of unrestrained capital or the innate wisdom of the free market, Twain guessed that there would be an organized union movement to secure elementary right for those who had to sweat. But he allowed no crude prejudices against those who made money from them. Accepting human villainy to be even more fundamental than human decency, Twain didn’t believe you needed a conspiracy theory to explain piracy….
Twain’s sympathy for American Indians might not be apparent in an early piece like “The Noble Red Man’ of 1870, which would not please Marlin Brando, but really Twain was just mocking the idea that the Noble Red Man lived in a civil order that made modern American civilization look barbaric by comparison. Twain didn’t believe that you could set about dealing with the deficiencies of modern America unless you first stopped dreaming of Arcadia. (NOTE: this was a region of ancient Greece in the Peloponnesus, where relatively isolated inhabitants proverbially lived a simple pastoral life – in other words, something and somewhere way off the grid or reality, and not normal, and yet, a view of isolation held by a lot of our fellow Americans, not just in Twain’s time but nowadays as well.) Twain was optimistic as one could be about modern life without seeing it through pink glasses.
Twains sympathy for women might similarly seem questionable by modern standards – on the whole he preferred to joke about the issue of women’s suffrage rather than face it – but he was a long say ahead of his time. …He always spoke against the exploitation of women as servants and married chattels, regretted the conditions that doomed them to do less than they could and never doubted that they could do anything. His article on Joan of Arc’s trial is a clarion call that could fill an issue of Ms. In private he was famously tender to his sick daughters and lived in a state of controlled despair about his invalid wife: he was so devoted to her that he was thought saintly by powerful men of his acquaintance, some of whom weren’t a saintly at all and, had been, by implication, flayed in his regular philippics against the great crime of seduction.
In fact, Twain was so blameless that he is likely to make us uncomfortable. Nowadays, the press – the cultural press, which is no less implacable than the doorstep reporters, only a bit slower – would try to get something on him.
One source tells us that, “Since it was first published in 1885, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain has been one of the most frequently challenged and banned books in America. The classic novel was #14 on the American Library Association’s Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books for the decade between 2000-2009. According to the ALA, “A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others.” Book banning is a form of censorship, the official prohibition or restriction of any type of expression (such as literature) believed to threaten the political, social, or moral order.
Throughout history, various people and groups have challenged books like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because they contain information, ideas, or language that conflicts with their own values and beliefs. Huckleberry Finn remains one of the most controversial novels in classrooms and on school library shelves; the main criticism is Twain’s treatment of the theme of race and his use of racial slurs in reference to African Americans, Native Americans, and poor white Americans. Although the novel is written in the vernacular of its historical setting and the time period in which it was written, people today find this language offensive. Some people believe the novel condones or promotes racism.”
To believe that Huckleberry Finn promotes racism requires one to be playing with a deck way short of the authorized 52. It also makes one think that the move against such books is often led by folks who’ve never read the novel and may be are operating only on what they heard from others. I’d also suspect that such folks haven’t read much of anything except what some self-recognized authority has blessed for them. Too bad for them — and for us. Reading in our schools class rooms needs to use books like Huckleberry Finn and go directly at ignorance — and to support this, schoolboards and their lawyers need to cajone-up to resist the pathetic the squawkling and mean-eyed onslaughts of literary lunkites. Remember James’s words, “To see past what you hear.” That applies to a whole lot of situations in this land.
If Twain was alive today, I suspect he would be flayed with verbal flensing knives wielded by the thin, shaky hands of special interests, both for this work and his personal views. Twain himself said of censorship, it is “ telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.” Yeah, that says it nicely.